Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Environmental research: the social and the technical

August 19, 2011

Today I heard Prof. Sharachchandra Lele on Interdisciplinarity in environmental research: How the social is intertwined with the Technical (pdf).

Here is my three line summary of the talk. Environmental phenomena are caused by humans; and they affect human welfare. So, inherently, there are value judgements in discussions, which are hidden, and what is worse, refused to be acknowledged. Further, different approaches (political ecology, economics, conservation biologist, …) lead to different solutions — because the end goal is different for each.

Prof. Lele also made a reference to a paper by Max-Neef called Foundations of transdisciplinarity, which is available here (pdf); I think I should read it some time.

A very though provoking lecture, all in all.


Saving the fragile predator

November 9, 2009

I recently bought Ullas Karanth’s A view from the Machan: how science can save the fragile predator. This is a paperback published by Permanent Black and is nicely illustrated by Maya Ramaswamy. From the book I learnt about the writer Kenneth Anderson, about heroes like Chinnappa who almost gave their life to the conservation effort, and about Karanth’s views which are at variance with those of some of the other Indian coservationists — Madhav Gadgil being the example that Karanth quotes by name (and, having heard Gadgil on some of these issues, it was nice for me to learn Karanth’s view point).

A nice book for a Sunday afternoon reading and stongly recommended.

Xenophilia and environmentalism: two new pieces from Amitav Ghosh

December 13, 2008

I spent the entire morning reading Amitav Ghosh’s two new pieces in the latest Outlook Exclusive (what they call Nano) edition; and, at the outset, let me say that both are a must-read!

The first piece, called Confessions of a Xenophile, is based on Amitav Ghosh’s field study in Egypt. The parts about the cows, Bollywood and Kirloskar are all familiar to me thanks to his In an antique land; however, that does not diminish the pleasure of reading yet another recounting by Ghosh:

Although these interrogations were often wearisome, there was also something touching about the attitudes of my friends. When we were out walking in the fields they would slow their pace when we were passing a cow: it took me a while to understand that they were allowing me time to perform my secret oblations. In the ploughing season, it often happened that we would pass a field where a team of oxen was being driven on with a stick or a whip: on many such occasions my friends would run ahead to berate the poor ploughman, telling him to stop beating his animals for fear of hurting the sentiments of Doktor Amitaab. In vain would I try to persuade them that cows were frequently beaten in India: they wouldn’t believe me, for had they not seen otherwise in Hindi films?

Ghosh goes on to talk about NAM (Non-Aligned Movement), the necessity of such institutional frameworks in making field studies like his (as well as import of movies and machines) possible, and the most important of all, the role of this field study on his writing.

I was happy to see Ghosh endorsing one of my theses, namely, that an anthropological field study equips one to be a better writer (my favourite examples being M N Srinivas, Ramachandra Guha and Ghosh himself). Here is how Ghosh puts it:

In other words, it was decolonization and its aftermath that made it possible for me to live for a time in Egypt. I say this in a spirit of the deepest gratitude, for this experience was critical to my development as a writer: it was my equivalent of writing school. While living in Beheira I maintained a detailed journal, in which I made extensive notes about my conversations with people, and the things I saw around me. Not only did this teach me to observe what I was seeing; it also taught me how to translate raw experience on to the page. It was the best kind of training a novelist could have and it has stood me in good stead over the years. Much of my writing has been influenced by this experience.

Ghosh goes on to give one more reason why, sometimes, the field study might serve a budding writer well:

For any writer, reading is as essential as writing, and in this regard too, my time in Egypt was absolutely essential to my literary formation. Although I have always been a voracious reader, I have never, in all my life, read as much as I did in Lataifa. This was possible partly because there was not much else to do: like most rural communities, Lataifa was a quiet place where nothing much happened. It was in Lataifa that I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and I would not perhaps have felt its influence as powerfully as I did if I had not been living there. One Hundred Years of Solitude alerted me to the possibility that the movement of time may most often be felt most powerfully in places that appear to be far removed from the main currents of history: Lataifa was one such place, an Egyptian Macondo. It was in Lataifa also that I discovered contemporary Arabic fiction.

Of course, the first time when I made the suggestion about anthropology and writing, I was told that the three writers I mention are exceptions than the rule. Ghosh’s piece also gives one indication why this might be so — the goals and motivations behind the field study may also play a crucial role:

My dream was of writing fiction, but like many an aspiring novelist I felt I lacked the necessary richness of experience. The writers I admired – V.S.Naipaul, James Baldwin and others – had gone out into the world and watched it go by: I wanted no less for myself. The scholarship was a godsend because it allowed me to choose where I wanted to go and in my case it was Egypt.

In the West, Third World nationalism is often presented as an ideology of xenophobia and parochialism. But the truth is that many of these movements of resistance tried very hard, within their limited means, to create an universalism of their own. Those of us who grew up in that period will recall how powerfully we were animated by an emotion that is rarely named: this is xenophilia, the love of the other, the affinity for strangers – a feeling that lives very deep in the human heart, but whose very existence is rarely acknowledged. People of my generation will recall the pride we once took in the trans-national friendships of such figures as Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Chou En Lai and others.

If I am to think of what drew me to Egypt in 1980, it was, at bottom, the very impulse that I have been describing here – a kind of xenophilia, a desire to reclaim the globe in my own fashion, a wish to eavesdrop on an ancient civilizational conversation.

Ghosh ends this piece with a prescription for the continuance of such xenophilia and its importance in the present context:

I have pointed to that period, rather, in order to evoke the desires and hopes that animated it, in particular to its strain of xenophilia, to its yearning for a certain kind of universalism – not a universalism merely of principles and philosophy, but one of face-to-face encounters, of everyday experience. Except that this time we must correct the mistake that lay at the heart of that older anti-colonial impulse – which is that we must not only include the West within this spectrum of desire, we must also acknowledge that both the West and we ourselves have been irreversibly changed by our encounter with each other. We must recognize that in the West, as in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, there are great numbers of people who, by force of circumstance, have become xenophiles, in the deepest sense, of acknowledging that in matters of language, culture and civilization, their heritage, like ours, is fragmented, fissured and incomplete. Only when our work begins to embody the conflicts, the pain, the laughter, and the yearning that comes from this incompleteness will our work be a true mirror of the world we live in.

The second piece is longer and more substantial (by that I not only mean that there are references and footnotes, but also that none of the material (except for the Bon Bibi myth) was known to me prior to my reading this piece) and is titled Wild fictions; as you read the piece you understand that (in the true Ghosh-ian fashion), there are several layers of meaning that one can give to that phrase in the context of the discussion; also, it begins with one form of wild fiction and ends with another that is very different; along the way, there is some though-provoking statements; I do not want to mar the experience of reading that piece for the readers of this blog by quoting from it, except for this section at the end of the essay:

It is my belief that only fiction can provide a canvas broad enough to address this relationship [between human beings and their surroundings] in all its dimensions; only in fiction can a reconciliation be affected between Bon Bibi and Saint-Pierre’s recluse, between the quest of a scientist determined to prevent the disappearance of a species and the needs of a fisherman who must hunt in order to live. It follows then that if nature is to be re-imagined in such a way as to restore the human presence within it – not as predator but partner – then this too must first be told as a story. In India we are fortunate in that our literary traditions, powerfully influenced though they are by the West, have never wholly succumbed to the romantic imagining of Nature as a ‘pristine’, uninhabited temple. Such writers as as Sivarama Karanth, Gopinath Mohanty and Mahasweta Devi have always been profoundly aware of the predicament of those who live in India’s forests. That a meaningful debate on this issue is possible at all in today’s India is due in no small part to their fictional explorations of this territory.

Have fun!

The neutrinos and the tiger

June 29, 2008

No, this is not a post about the The Quark and the Jaguar type adventures in the simple and complex.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara writes about an ambitious scientific project to be housed in the middle of the tiger sanctuary at Mudumalai which threatens the sanctuary and the wild life:

Few environmentalists even are aware of the fact that a top level scientific project, the India-based Neutrino Observatory, is scheduled to be built in Singara, in the Mudumalai Sanctuary in the heart of tiger and leopard territory. Scientists who presented the news to a shocked local audience in Ooty argued that this was a dream project which was the pride and joy of the Indian scientific world. Questions regarding genuine environmental concerns about the impact on the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve were met with defensive reactions. The atmosphere at the Ooty Collectorate, where the presentation was made, turned into practically a pitched battle between the scientists versus the conservationists. Raised voices and unnecessarily rude comments are futile and counterproductive. However, many of the questions asked by the Nilgiris activists needed valid answers from the INO team and the Chennai-based Care Earth group, an NGO presenting the pros and cons of the project.

While few people would oppose a science project described as Abdul Kalam’s dream, the question being asked by serious local residents and environmental scientists is whether one can really force the country to choose between Science or The Tiger? It’s a ludicrous proposition.

Explaining the Neutrino Project to lay people is a difficult and complicated task. Those interested can go to the INO website for the technical details. For the lay reader it is sufficient to know that an enormous underground observatory is planned in Singara, within the core Tiger Reserve of the Mudumalai sanctuary.

Though Thekaekara, unfortunately, does not give the URL for the INO site, here it is, for those of you who are so inclined; I also would have liked the information on the scientists who made the presentation, which, again, unfortunately, is missing in the piece.

The damage that Thekaekara describes that would be inflicted on the sanctuary read horrifying:

The INO project needs 52,000 tons of iron in the first stage and another 50,000 tons in the second stage only for the detector. Additionally, approximately another 35,000 tons of cement, steel, PVC, copper, aluminium, sand and other building materials will be needed. This huge volume of iron and other material will come from Mysore (nearest railway station) normally moved in 20 ton trucks. New roads through the forests will be essential. Normally the Forest department prohibits such disturbance of core areas.

Equally problematic is the debris and muck that will be generated. The official Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not yet been released but rough calculations based on the dimensions and scale of the project can be taken from the latest INO report.

The tunnel will be “D” shaped, 6.5 m wide and 6.5 m tall and 2.38 km long. So, nearly 90,000 cubic metres of rock will be taken out. The cavern complex will consist of an Experiment hall (about 22 m wide, 30 m tall and 120 m long) — about 75,000 cubic metres, a smaller cavern for the control facilities of about half the size, and a loading and storage area of about another 60,000 cubic metres. So that’s 2,25,000 cubic metres totally.

Given the density of granite in the area (2.8g/cm) this translates to 6,25,000 tons of debris or about 78,000 truck loads. That means almost 95,000 trucks, and double that in terms of trips through the forest since the trucks have to go back and forth.

As the construction is scheduled to take about four years, this involves 130 truck trips going through everyday!

Although the INO scientists assured the group that they would contain the damage, local environmentalists have had a bitter experience. Masinagudi has grown from a village of a few hundred people to a town of 10,000 because of the PUSHEP (Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project).

And, there also seems to be some PR mishap:

Ms. Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, when asked how such a project could possibly be located in the heart of the Tiger Reserve, replied that it was on patta land, a remark that enraged serious environmentalists who have watched the slow erosion of animal turf by the tourist and PUSHEP projects. “Does the elephant or tiger read maps to know when a patch of land in the middle of the forest is declared patta?” local conservationists ask.

Finally, Thekaekara also makes references to the muscle and power of INO project in high places:

The INO project has muscle and power in high places. Only the State government and Forest Department permission stands between the Tiger Reserve and destruction.

A very disturbing and saddening piece!

Update: A bit of poking around at the INO site took me to their FAQ page, which does answer the question about the location selection (there are also photographs of the site, elsewhere on the page, by the way):

6. What were the factors in deciding the location at Singara?

The main reasons for locating the laboratory at Singara are safety, accessibility, minimal disturbance to environment and ecology and outreach possibilities.

The Nilgiri massif is known to be highly compacted granite which is suitable for tunnelling. The existing underground power station PUSHEP, at Singara, has provided a wealth of data about the existing conditions for tunnelling. In addition the steep northern slopes provide shortest access to the laboratory which is located 1300 meters below the top surface. No other site has this major advantage. When a laboratory is expected to run for decades underground, the safety and long-term stability of the location is a primary requirement.

It was also very clear from the beginning that any site requiring such a large overburden will come under environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas. It was therefore decided that we look for sites where the needed infrastructure already exists so as to cause minimal disturbance.

Accessibility of the site is also crucial. The site at Singara is accessible easily from major cities like Coimbatore, Mysore and Bangalore. Such factors are important to develop a laboratory with participation from scientists from many parts of India and even abroad.

The FAQ goes on to claim that there would neither be new road construction nor forest clearing.  The FAQ also answers questions about storing the muck, vehicular traffic disturbance, disturbance during construction, and so on.

Update: NBRAlliance, in a comment below, alerts me to this blog which has some more information on the issue.

Environmental impact of …

December 18, 2007

Divorce! Yes, you read that correctly. Here is the abstract of the paper published in the recent issue of PNAS:

Divorce is increasingly common around the world. Its causes, dynamics, and socioeconomic impacts have been widely studied, but little research has addressed its environmental impacts. We found that average household size (number of people in a household) in divorced households (households with divorced heads) was 27–41% smaller than married households (households with married heads) in 12 countries across the world around the year 2000 (between 1998 and 2002). If divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in these countries. Meanwhile, the number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33–95% greater than in married households. In the United States (U.S.) in 2005, divorced households spent 46% and 56% more on electricity and water per person than married households. Divorced households in the U.S. could have saved more than 38 million rooms, 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, and 627 billion gallons of water in 2005 alone if their resource-use efficiency had been comparable to married households. Furthermore, U.S. households that experienced divorce used 42–61% more resources per person than before their dissolution. Remarriage of divorced household heads increased household size and reduced resource use to levels similar to those of married households. The results suggest that mitigating the impacts of resource-inefficient lifestyles such as divorce helps to achieve global environmental sustainability and saves money for households.

The paper, published by Eunice Yu and Jianguo Liu is available here. The paper goes on to mention a few more mechanisms too, in case you are interested:

Divorce is just one mechanism that leads to a decline in household size and extra households. Other mechanisms include declines in multigenerational households, delays in first marriage, increases in empty-nesters, and increases in separated couples. These alternate lifestyles may create environmental impacts similar to divorce through a reduction in average household size and an increase in the number of households.

Have fun!

The Nobel Peace Prize 2007

October 12, 2007

Has been awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr,

for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.

Update: Chad at uncertain principles goes the Onion way with the Al Gore news!

“The President feels that at this time, it’s too early to say for sure whether Al Gore has won the Peace prize,” said White House spokesman Scott Stencil. “The science is just not conclusive yet. The President feels that more study is needed before we agree that this honor has been conferred to the former Vice President.”

When reporters pointed out that the announcement had been posted on the official Nobel Prize web site, Stencil raised the possibility of malicious computer hackers. “We have solid intelligence that indicates that pedophile computer hackers affiliated with Al Qaeda were planning to attack the Nobel Prize site. We think this ‘announcement’ might be the work of Islamofascist tree-huggers, and encourage all American citizens to run back to bed and cower under the covers until we determine the truth.” Stencil refused to identify the source of this intelligence, citing national security concerns.

The White House plans to call an international summit in early 2008, involving representatives of major oil-producing countries, to determine the real winner of the Nobel Prize. “We should be able to establish a clear consensus on the true winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize by no later than October of 2015,” Stencil said. “We ask that people be patient.”

The announcement was the latest in a series of decisions that critics say indicate that the President is becoming increasingly disconnected from reality. These include his refusal to acknowledge the retirement of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an insistence that Will and Rebecca are still contestants on ‘Beauty and the Geek,’ and pretty much the entire Iraq war.

William brought tears to my eyes

August 1, 2007

An inspiring and elevating experience of an interview with William Kambkwamba: it is communication that transcends language!

PS: There are three more talks on Africa by others here.

Freeman Dyson on our biotech future

June 30, 2007

Freeman Dyson writes about our biotech future in New York Review of Books; via /.

Dyson begins with the domestication of biotechnology, i.e., genetic engineering that is accessible to people so that they may breed their own varieties of pets, for example, and goes on to ask

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally?

And, he does not answer these questions, but leaves it to the future generations.

He then proceeds to discuss evolution,  in the context of which talks about an Open Source approach to biology:

We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

Dyson then talks about rural poverty and how domestication of genetic engineering might help achieve green technologies that can alleviate such poverty, in which context he talks about India:

In a country like India with a large rural population, bringing wealth to the villages means bringing jobs other than farming. Most of the villagers must cease to be subsistence farmers and become shopkeepers or schoolteachers or bankers or engineers or poets. In the end the villages must become gentrified, as they are today in England, with the old farm workers’ cottages converted into garages, and the few remaining farmers converted into highly skilled professionals. It is fortunate that sunlight is most abundant in tropical countries, where a large fraction of the world’s people live and where rural poverty is most acute. Since sunlight is distributed more equitably than coal and oil, green technology can be a great equalizer, helping to narrow the gap between rich and poor countries.

Take a look!

Dharma clicks!

June 24, 2007

You thought you can only earn good karma using digital prayer wheels? Now, you can do even better. Help save birds with your clicks; Birdchick has more details.

Update: Birdchick tells the good news–Ventana Wildlife Society did manage to get the $10000 for their Condor reintroduction program. Thanks to all those who Dharma-clicked.

Gatze Lettinga: 2007 Tyler prize winner

April 18, 2007

The 2007 Tyler Prize (for environmental science, energy and medicine conferring great benefit upon mankind) has been awarded to Prof. Gatze Lettinga; here is Prof. Lettinga’s home page; here is his profile at the Tyler prize page; here is his Scientific Commons page. Finally, here is the Hindu on the Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket UASB) technology developed by Prof. Lettinga:

What makes UASB stand out is the great opportunity to use the methane that is produced as a by-product, particularly in the developing countries.

It is in total contrast to the energy intensive aerobic wastewater treatment technologies.

The UASB thus solves two problems.

First, it treats industrial wastewater and second, it produces renewable energy.

UASB technology is suitable in a developing world urban context as it is efficient, simple, low-cost, needs low capital and maintenance costs and has low land requirements.

Take a look!